UK regional Flybe CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener outlined the scale of inequality facing women in the airline industry in London June 7.

Addressing the Aviation Club UK, Ourmières-Widener, who has just become the only woman on the 31-strong IATA board of governors, said she was astonished by some comments directed at her during the IATA AGM in Sydney a few days previously.

“During IATA, I don’t know how many times people asked me: ‘How did you get the job?’ I was really trying not to answer rudely, but I thought, ‘Would they ask that question of a man?’” Ourmières-Widener has a degree in aeronautics and has worked for several airlines during her career.

Her remarks followed the controversial comment at the end of the IATA AGM by the organization’s new chairman, Qatar Airways’ group CEO Akbar Al Baker, that ‘only a man can run an airline,’ a comment for which he later apologized.

“I have known Akbar for years and I have to say: ‘Akbar, it’s not really a good joke.’” However, she added that the storm Al Baker’s comment sparked at least created awareness for the need to do something about the inequality facing women in the industry.

“We need to work harder, because the situation is not acceptable,” she said.

As CEO of Flybe, Europe’s largest regional carrier, she said she is responsible for creating a company and culture that allows women to be promoted. Indeed, she has done precisely that, with directors of safety and ground operations at the Exeter-based airline now women. However, she stressed, they were promoted because they were the best people for the jobs, not based on gender.

She noted that around 8% of Flybe’s pilots are females—above the industry average, “but it’s still terrible.

“It’s not good enough to talk about it or set quotas. There needs to be a concerted effort in schools to encourage girls to study science and math.” That effort needs to continue throughout their educational careers.

If the female half of the world’s population provided the same percentage of pilots and engineers as men, then the growing personnel shortages in both areas would be eliminated, she said.

Alan Dron